By Mike Goodrich

On Wednesday, Feb 25, in the early hours of the morning, crowds will start gathering outside the Tinseltown 20 Multiplex in Plano, a middle-class suburb of Dallas, Texas. 

It’s Ash Wednesday. The event: the first show of the opening-day screening of Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. At 6.30am, the 125-minute film will begin playing on not one, not 10, but all 20 of the screens. In fact, at the time of writing (Jan 22), all 20 screens are sold out for all the shows of the film until the evening. 

For Newmarket Films, the independent distributor which has partnered with Gibson’s Icon Entertainment on the theatrical release of the picture, the demand for the film is unprecedented and should continue right through Lent to Easter. This kind of demand is unprecedented for most Hollywood studio blockbusters. For all the controversy which has plagued Gibson’s third film as a director, the major nay, monster commercial success of the film is now almost a given.

For the majors which turned down the film, the demand for THE PASSIION is a big lesson. The conservative religious population in the US is a potentially massive cinema-going demographic which was underserved by Hollywood until Gibson, an A-list star if ever there was one, decided to make his personal, RomanCatholic film of the passion. Gibson isn’t even in the picture; his stars are Jim Caviezel as Jesus, Romania’s Maia Morgenstern as Mary and Italy’s Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene; the film is in the (dead) Aramaic language, is subtitled and contains brutal scenes of violence against Christ which have earned it an ‘R’ rating in the US. But this particular audience doesn’t care that it’s subtitled, violent and doesn’t have stars in it:this isn’t the upscale audience of LosAngeles or New York City, nor teenagers or African Americans or any other key demographic. This is Middle America. Welcome to the Bible Belt. 

Bob Berney, the independent distribution veteran who is a partner in Newmarket Films and runs the company’s distribution activities, explains that the combination of Gibson, a supremely bankable star in Middle America, and The Bible is an extraordinary one. “They want to know what Mel Gibson’s take is,” he explains. “Gibson is probably the most popular movie star in the country and he definitely is in the world of Reader’s Digest readers.

“The film, which is only now starting to screen for press, is,” says Berney, “intense. It’s the last 12 hours of Christ’s life, with flashbacks, and is quite an experience. People who have seen it are stunned and can’t talk at the end of it. Mel is trying to humanize the bible story and therefore it’s very violent. We got the R rating from the MPM after some discussion. Some kids will be horrified, but it’s not a family movie. We are working in the campaign to educate families as to this fact in advance, so that, if they take kids, they will take older kids rather than younger.”

Good reviews, says Berney, are not a priority as they would be in the smaller arthouse films which he is such an expert at releasing: “It’s a powerful and moving film and I think it will get good reviews, but only if critics can review the film and not Mel. Some won’t be able to get past it.”

So how has this subtitled, ‘R’-rated, violent picture reached such a fever pitch of excitement in the US? Berney explains that Icon and Newmarket have worked together in the past on financing agreements and that Newmarket’s Will Tyrer approached Gibson’s partner at Icon, Bruce Davey, about handling the domestic release of the film when Icon’s studio partner 20th Century Fox and others passed on it after accusations of anti-semitism started flying at Gibson from Jewish groups, none of which had seen the film. 

Icon had already hired a consultant called Paul Lauer to devise a strategy targeting different churches and work on a grassroots religious campaign. “They were trying to build awareness in the churches like you would a political campaign, and while this was going on, we started to realize the scope of the film. Since we took on the film, we have had hundreds of thousands of calls from churches asking how to get advance tickets and free tickets. Most of the exhibitors started asking for two _or three prints per complex. We decided that we should go as wide as possible to begin with.”

And it’s not just the Catholic Church which approved the film – although whether the Pope himself uttered the now-famous edict, “It is as it was,” has been disputed by Vatican sources. Even leaders in the Southern Baptist church which usually condemns Hollywood product and certainly disapproves of ‘R’rated films, has told its congregations that they can go to the film.

Once the film was screened to leaders of various churches and they officially endorsed it, fliers were sent out into the church communities and screenings were set up to drive word of mouth. The official The Passion website started to get millions of hits a day. Meanwhile, the controversy and Gibson’s name have fueled interest in traditional media outlets and want-to-see among non-religious audiences. Gibson’s publicist Alan Nierob, who is based at Rogers & Cowan in Los Angeles, has worked closely with Newmarket to combat the negative publicity on the film. The teaser trailer was premiered on ABC morning show “Good Morning America” and the first trailer was premiered on CBS show “Entertainment Tonight”.

”After that,” says Berney, “the website went through the roof. After the trailers went out on those network shows, we started to get enquiries about group sales. The major circuits like Regal, Cinemark and AMC have set up their own 800 numbers and internet sites to go to for information on tickets.”

Astonishingly, six or seven weeks before Feb 25, most circuits had set the daily times and schedules of the film in its first few weeks, when normally the times are not set in stone until a fortnight before opening. 

Gibson himself has personally screened the film for numerous church and religious groups and will continue to do so to further the grassroots campaign, but he won’t spend too much rime on the road tubthumping for publicity purposes. Instead, the star has opted to do select interviews with key press and TV outlets, preferring the spotlight to fall on his actors. 

He did, however, attend the Ain’t It Cool News (AICN) Film Festival, which was held recently in Austin, Texas, where he was interviewed on stage after the screening by Harry Knowles, the founder of the maverick website. “If you go to the festival, you have to watch movie after movie for 24 hours,” says Berney, “and THE PASSION was the final film, but the response was incredible from the audience, which was composed of internet geeks and was not religious.”

Even Jewish groups will want to see the film, thinks Berney: “So much has been written about it which was negative without anyone seeing the film. It certainly is very upfront about its Catholic faith, but it’s not anti-semitic, and the Jewish community will want to see it for themselves.” 

Opening on some 2,200 sites, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is the widest ever opening for a subtitled film and, although Berney won’t be drawn on estimates, it is expected to top $30m in its first weekend and maybe outgross the $128m taken by previous top subtitled film CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.

The question remains as to whether it will inspire Hollywood studios to look at the sleeping giant that is the Christian audience in a different light. After all, Hollywood never used to shy away from spending tens of millions of dollars to produce religious epics like QUO VADIS?, BEN-HUR, KING OF KINGS, THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and THE ROBE. Those films are not only classics but some of the biggest moneyspinners in history.

An indication will be where the video rights land for the film, a deal Icon has not yet opted to make. Certainly Fox and the other studios, only a few weeks ago shying away from THE PASSION out of political correctness, will now be looking hungrily at its long-term value on DVD and video, not to mention in non-theatrical arenas and direct mail markets. No longer a hot potato, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST has quickly evolved into one of the year’s must-see hot tickets.